George Stinney, Jr (1929-1944), at age 14, was the youngest person in America to be executed since the 1800s. A jury of 12 white men found Stinney, a black boy, guilty of the murder of two white girls, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 8.
One spring day in 1944 in the mill town of Alcolu, South Carolina, two white girls went to pick flowers down by the railroad tracks that divided the town into black and white.
When they did not return, hundreds went in search of them, black and white, George Stinney among them. They searched deep into the night. They found them the next morning, dead in a ditch, their bicycle on top of them, their heads beat in, apparently by a nearby railroad spike. No sign of rape.
The police rounded up black boys, George Stinney among them. Stinney became the main suspect when they found out that he was the last one to see them alive – the white girls had asked him where to find maypops (Passiflora incarnata), a kind of flower.
The police questioned him, without a lawyer (no Miranda rights back then). His parents were not allowed to be present. After an hour he confessed, reportedly after being offered an ice cream cone. The confession was neither written nor signed.
There were no eyewitnesses, no physical evidence. Even for 14 he was small: 5 foot 1 (1.55m) and 90 pounds (40kg). It is physically improbable that he could kill two girls with a railroad spike.
According to the confession, he wanted to have sex with Binnicker, the 11-year-old girl, and killed Thames to be alone with her. Then, when Binnicker refused his advances, he killed her too.
A lynch mob arrived at the jail when the news of the confession spread, but Stinney had already been moved to the state capital.
His father was fired at the mill, his family ran out of town.
The murder trial a month later lasted less than three hours. The courthouse was standing room only, no blacks allowed.
Charles Plowden, Stinney’s court-appointed lawyer was a white tax lawyer. Plowden:
- did not ask for a change of venue;
- did not cross-examine witnesses;
- did not call any witnesses;
- did not appeal.
Plowden’s whole defence was that Stinney was too young to be tried as an adult. Wrong: 14 was old enough according to South Carolina law.
The jury of 12 white men took 10 minutes to find Stinney “guilty with no recommendation for mercy”.
Hundreds wrote to the governor asking for mercy, among them the NAACP, churches and labour unions. One citizen informed him:
Child execution is only for Hitler.
The governor disagreed:
On June 16th 1944, Stinney, carrying a Bible under his arm, walked to the electric chair, just 81 days after his arrest. He was so small they had trouble strapping him in. The mask over his face was too big and fell off in the middle, “revealing his wide-open, tearful eyes and saliva coming from his mouth.” A few minutes later he was dead.
Thanks to Peanut, Thinking Better, Jefe and Bulanik for suggesting this post.